Bach died on this day in 1750. Here is Daniel Barenboim playing the Aria from the Goldberg Variations. A few years ago, when we had an old piano in the house, I spent a good deal of time trying to learn to play the opening bars of this piece. I never did get very far.
Archive for the 'Music' Category
Richard Strauss made an operatic name for himself with the dark and exotic dramas of Elektra and Salome, with their bloodthirsty heroines and tumultuous scores, so it was, perhaps, a surprise when his next project proved to be a genteel drawing-room opera with music based throughout on the Viennese waltz. Der Rosenkavalier (The Cavalier of the Rose) was a hit nonetheless, and has remained popular in opera houses in the intervening century.
There are four principal roles. The Marschellin, an older woman, is carrying on an illicit affair with a young man, Octavian; meanwhile, a philandering older man, Baron Ochs, seeks the hand of a young woman, Sophie, in marriage. Over the course of the opera Octavian and Sophie fall in love, and their marriage is contrived with the help of the Marschellin and at the expense of the Baron.
That’s it, in a nutshell, but Strauss and his long-time librettist, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, have made more of it than a brief plot sketch would suggest. Consider, for instance, the long monologue which the Marschellin sings at the end of Act I; in it, she reflects on growing old, the inevitable passage of time, and mortality. It’s a melancholy monologue, but Strauss has infused it with a delicate, beguiling beauty that resonates graciously in the ear. Here is Kiri Te Kanawa singing it, with English subtitles:
We can hear the same music sung by the wonderful soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf here, albeit without English subtitles. Live footage of Schwarzkopf is rare, so this is a treat. If you don’t know, she was one of the greatest Strauss sopranos of the ‘golden age’ of opera recordings in the 1950s and 1960s.
At the end of Act I, immediately prior to the Marschellin’s solitary ruminations we just heard, Baron Ochs had deputized the young Octavian to take a rose to the home of Sophie, presenting it to her on the Baron’s behalf. (Octavian is thus the titular ‘cavalier of the rose’.) At the beginning of Act II he arrives at her home, enters, and presents the gift — except that as he does so, he falls in love with Sophie, and she with him. This is a wonderful scene. The two of them sing a sprightly and ravishingly beautiful duet. Here are Anneliese Rothenberger (Sophie) and Sena Jurinac (Octavian); unfortunately I could not find a clip of this scene with English subtitles. You’ll notice that Octavian’s part is sung by a soprano; apparently it doesn’t prevent his being attractive to Sophie.
Strauss saves the best for last, however. As Act III draws to a close, and all of the machinations of the plot are winding down, he gives us two gorgeous ensemble pieces. The first is a trio, Hab’ mir’s gelobt, sung by the Marschellin, Octavian, and Sophie. This is one of the few triple-soprano pieces that I know of; one might have to go back to baroque opera to find another. Here are Anna Tomowa-Sintow (the Marschellin), Janet Perry (Sophie), and Agnes Baltsa (Octavian) in a 1980s-era Salzburg production, with English subtitles:
This is followed by the opera’s final number: a ravishing duet between Octavian and Sophie, which begins at about the 10 minute mark in the clip above, and is unquestionably one of the opera’s high points.
Der Rosenkavalier is over three hours long in performance, and, though the plot is slight, parts of it are truly excellent, as I hope this post has made clear.
A few things worth noting:
- Today is the anniversary of the death of William Byrd in 1623. Let’s hear his luminous setting of Ave Verum Corpus, sung here by the Tallis Scholars:
- Maclin Horton has some good commentary on the recent Hobby Lobby decision from the US Supreme Court, here and here.
- North of the border, we’ve had our own, politer brand of cultural politics to contend with. Our Golden Boy decided, out of the blue, to bar pro-life candidates from the Liberal party and to crack the party whip on the backs of those already elected to Parliament. Raymond de Souza’s blunt criticism of those who have buckled under this mistreatment is sobering but very much to the point.
- Also from Maclin Horton: somebody at Salon woke up and realized that Pope Francis might not be the Great White Hope that some thought he was. Instead, he’s a “sexist, nun-hating, poverty-perpetuating, pedophile-protecting homophobe”. That’s as clueless an assessment as its opposite was, but it is nonetheless oddly refreshing to hear it.
- Andy Whitman has high praise for Joe Henry’s latest album, Invisible Hour. Maybe this will be the Joe Henry record that finally wins me over? Andy sure makes it sound great.
Puccini’s Tosca has been an opera-house favourite since its premiere in 1900. Joseph Kerman famously dismissed it as “a shabby little shocker”, not without some reason, for it does have an unusually vicious villain, and the finale does play in a merciless and calculated way on the audience’s heartstrings, but the music is memorable and winsome, and in opera that generally carries the day.
The action of the plot takes place in a specific 24 hour period — 17-18 June 1800 — and the three Acts are set in three famous landmarks in Rome: the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese, and Castel Sant’Angelo. The action opens with a young painter, Cavaradossi, working on a mural in Sant’Andrea della Valle. He is interrupted by a friend, a political prisoner just escaped from prison. He offers him food, clothing, and a refuge on his estate. His lover, Tosca, then makes her entrance. Soon enough the fates of all three will be entangled. At this point, however, we are simply treated to a lovely duet (Non la sospiri, la nostra casetta?) (Do you not long for our little cottage?) between Cavaradossi and Tosca:
After Tosca’s departure, the Chief of Police, Scarpia, enters the church in pursuit of the escaped prisoner. Cavaradossi denies all knowledge, but Scarpia does not believe him; Cavaradossi is arrested.
In the second Act, the evil in Scarpia’s heart becomes fully evident: he brings Tosca in for questioning and vows to torture and kill Cavaradossi unless she will submit to his lecherous advances. She, hearing Cavarodossi’s cries of pain, vacillates as to what she should do in the famous aria Vissi d’arte (I lived for art). This is one of the best-known soprano arias in all of opera, and with good reason.
Much to my joy, we can listen to Maria Callas sing this aria! I haven’t featured Maria Callas much in these “Great moments in opera” posts because I generally prefer to embed live action, staged, and subtitled clips, and there is precious little live action footage of Callas. This clip of Vissi d’arte, however, meets all of my criteria. I am especially pleased about this because the role of Tosca is indelibly associated with Callas: her 1953 recording (opposite Giuseppe di Stefano and under the baton of Victor de Sabata) is widely considered to be the greatest recording of Tosca. Indeed, in a discussion of the greatest opera recordings ever made, it would have to be (and – has – been) part of the discussion.
Anyway, here she is singing Vissi d’arte, in a 1958 recording. (The clip is unfortunately not embeddable.)
The outcome of Tosca’s prayerful deliberation is a cunning scheme: she consents to submit to Scarpia’s desires on condition that he afterwards grant Cavaradossi and her safe passage out of Rome. He agrees, but stipulates that Cavaradossi must first go before the firing squad, as planned. He tells Tosca that he will have the soldiers fire blanks — never intending, of course, to honour the promise. He writes and signs her letter of safe passage. Then, as he approaches her, she draws his knife from his belt and stabs him. When he collapses on the floor, she grabs the passport and runs.
As the third Act opens, Cavaradossi is awaiting execution. In the quiet of the early morning, as the last stars he will ever see begin to fade from view, he sings what is one of my favourite arias in the repertoire, E lucevan le stelle. It’s a great example of Puccini’s art: simple in construction, lasting not longer than a typical pop song, but powerfully affecting. It begins with a quiet dialogue between the singer and a clarinet; the singer ruminates on a recitation tone, and the clarinet answers with a plaintive rising and falling phrase. Then, as the aria gathers momentum, the singer adopts the same arcing phrase, to wonderful effect. My favourite moment in the aria comes somewhere near the mid-point: as the singer reaches the top of his arc, Puccini has him drop to pianissimo and add a gorgeous little decoration. In the right hands, this comes through as meltingly gorgeous. Here is Joseph Calleja showing us how it is done:
Tosca tells him of the deal she struck with Scarpia, and of her subsequent murder of him. She instructs Cavaradossi to go bravely before the firing squad, and, when he hears the shots, to feign injury, falling and lying still until the soldiers leave. He, overjoyed, yet eager to flee before Scarpia’s murder is discovered, agrees. But of course the squad does not fire blanks, and though Cavaradossi falls and lies still, he feigns nothing.
These moments, immediately before and after the shooting, are the dramatic high point of the opera, and for many they are powerfully effective, but I have reservations. The dramatic situation is precisely but cruelly calibrated, and to me it feels manipulative. Listen to the music Puccini writes after the shots ring out: the agony is allowed so much time to ripen that I almost feel Puccini is relishing it. Is this just me recoiling from a particularly powerful but painful dramatic success? Maybe so, but I can’t shake the feeling that the scene, which might have been superb, is, in the end, too indulgent of feelings that I’ve no wish to cultivate.
Here is the scene, beginning a minute or so prior to the execution. We’ll watch it through to the end of the opera.
My pop music odyssey, structured, you may recall, around the discography of Bob Dylan, has been making slow but steady progress over the past few months. It began in 1962 with Dylan’s self-titled debut record, and, as time goes on, is widening to include the discographies of the Beatles, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits, along with a few other things thrown in from time to time.
I recently reached the end of the 1960s, which seems a good time to pause and offer a few thoughts. This leg of the odyssey has included 15 records by Bob Dylan (including a number of live and bootlegged recordings in addition to his studio albums), 12 by the Beatles (leaving only Let It Be, from 1970, still to come in their discography), 3 each by Neil Young and Van Morrison, and 2 by Leonard Cohen.
Of these, it is of course Bob Dylan who reigns supreme: listening to those records from the middle years of the decade again — from Freewheelin’ in 1963 up through John Wesley Harding in 1967 — it is amazing to consider his achievement. His debut album hardly prepared us for the supple, evocative, and often hilarious songwriting that showed up on Freewheelin’, and he only went from strength to strength. Sometime in 1962 he wrote “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song whose ambition outstripped everything else he’d done, but in the years that followed it was outstripped in turn. He seemed to spiral upward, shedding one persona after another, his music changing along with him, as in a whirlwind. It is hard to imagine where he might have gone after Blonde on Blonde had a motorcycle accident not laid him low, out of sight, for an extended period in 1966-7. When he came back, he had jumped tracks again, singing with a simplicity and straightforwardness that was belied by the enigmatic songs he had written. It is a period of artistic creativity that I, at any rate, find endlessly fascinating and absorbing, and it has been a great pleasure to revisit it.
What can it have been like to hear Astral Weeks for the first time? Van Morrison was not entirely unknown at the time: he had been the frontman for Them, and in the months leading up to Astral Weeks his record company had, without his consent, released a couple of records of solo material. But, even so, listeners could hardly have been ready for the ecstatic flights and spiritual longing of this, his official debut album. It is a kind of miracle, a one-off in a career by no means devoid of admirable achievements. Its whole spirit seems to have descended from on high, an exultation in song burst from the heart of the singer, who was, astoundingly, then just 23 years old. Despite the absence of anything resembling a single, and though it has long lingered in the shadow of the more accessible (and justly beloved) Moondance, there are few pieces of popular art that affect me more deeply and delight me more thoroughly than it does. Give me Astral Weeks, a steady rain, and the open road, and I’ll be the happiest man on earth.
A few years ago, on a bit of a whim, I sat down and listened to the first four or five albums by Pink Floyd; Pink Floyd was a famous band whose work I did not know well, and I thought it would be instructive. I was surprised — flabbergasted, really — to find those albums almost unlistenable: the dull sonic experiments, the aimless meandering, the pretentious tedium…
Well, I had a similar sort of experience — though admittedly to a lesser degree — with Neil Young’s self-titled debut record. Though I am an admirer of Neil Young, this was an album that I had never heard, and it turns out I wasn’t missing much. My purpose right now is not to critique it, but simply to ask: how did a lacklustre record like that lead to anything else? How did it become a stepping stone to a great career, rather than a torpedo to it? What did people hear in it that they liked? Maybe I’m just spoiled by knowing the Young of the 1970s before knowing the Young of the 1960s.
Now that I think of it, I suppose much the same line of comment could be applied to Dylan’s debut record too. It barely hinted at what was to come, and that only in retrospect.
This leg of my journey may well eventually prove to have been the most rewarding. In Rolling Stone’s list of the “Top 500 albums,” for instance, fully seven of the Top 10 are from the 1960s (and, of those, six have been part of my odyssey). Perhaps it’s all downhill from here. But I hope not.
Meantime, here is a list of my ten favourite odyssey-albums from the 1960s, more or less in descending order:
Van Morrison — Astral Weeks (1968)
Bob Dylan — Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Bob Dylan — Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
Bob Dylan — Freewheelin’ (1963)
Bob Dylan — Live 1964 (1964)
Bob Dylan — John Wesley Harding (1967)
Beatles — Abbey Road (1969)
Bob Dylan — Another Side (1964)
Leonard Cohen — Songs (1967)
Beatles — Help! (1965)
Making a list of favourite odyssey-songs from the same period seems slightly pointless: it more or less amounts to making a list of favourite Dylan songs. But why not? It’s a cruel exercise, there being so many fine candidates, but I’ll give it a shot.
“Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisited)
“To Ramona” (Another Side)
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (Bringing It All Back Home)
“Visions of Johanna” (Blonde on Blonde)
“All Along the Watchtower” (John Wesley Harding)
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (Freewheelin’)
“I Want You” (Blonde on Blonde)
“One Too Many Mornings” (The Times They Are A-Changin’)
“Love Minus Zero / No Limit” (Bringing It All Back Home)
“Suzanne” — Leonard Cohen
Looking at that list, I realize it probably doesn’t overlap much with a standard list of Dylan’s “best songs”: no “Blowin’ in the Wind”, no “Like a Rolling Stone”, no “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”. But there are not meant to be his best songs, by some indeterminate measure, but only my favourite songs, tried and true over many years of listening. And look! one non-Dylan song snuck onto the list in spite of all.
And now, turning to face forward, and putting on my bell-bottoms, I see in the distance Dylan painting a Self-Portrait, Neil Young reaping a Harvest, Van Morrison breakfasting on Tupelo Honey, Leonard Cohen donning New Skin for an Old Ceremony, and Tom Waits, who until now has been warming up his crooning voice in the wings, I see serenading Nighthawks at the Diner. It’s the 1970s, and I’m cautious but resolute.
From time to time I have thought to compile a catalogue of musical settings of Chesterton’s poetry. He wrote scads of poetry — now three fat volumes in the Collected Works — and though most of it is of middling quality, there are some gems within. A number of composers have taken up the challenge.
Here is a list of settings, incomplete but still valuable. From it we learn that composer John Gardner has made an extensive setting, for baritone, chorus, and orchestra, of The Ballad of the White Horse, Chesterton’s most ambitious poem; I should dearly love to hear it, but there seem to be no recordings available. Ralph Vaughan Williams paired the poem “O God of Earth and Altar” with the hymn tune KING’S LYNN in the 1906 edition of The English Hymnal [hear it]. The most frequently set among his poems appear to be “The Donkey”, “Wine and Water”, and “The Christ-Child lay on Mary’s lap”.
This last is the poem that has attracted the most eminent composers. It has been set by, among others, Judith Bingham, Will Todd, Gabriel Jackson, and Kenneth Leighton, all of whom, while not exactly household names, are well-known to choral music enthusiasts.
A couple of these settings are available on YouTube; I’ll close this post by linking to them.
Here is Will Todd’s setting of “The Christ-Child”:
And here is Gabriel Jackson’s setting of the same text:
I haven’t said much, as yet, about the progress of my pop music odyssey, which is now in its third month. This week it brought me to 1969 and Abbey Road. I’m going to take a minority position and say that this song might well be my favourite by the Beatles:
Richard Strauss’ Salome is one of those pieces whose debut was accompanied by so much controversy and vitriol — it was banned in numerous jurisdictions — that its political aspects tend to overshadow its musical aspects. The opera is based on Oscar Wilde’s play, which in turn is based (of course) on the Biblical account of Salome and St. John the Baptist.
The most famously controversial aspect of the work is the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” Salome’s seductive dance before Herod. It was taken as lewd by many in the original audience, and over the intervening century there have been a not-insignificant number of singers who have refused the part on those grounds. To my mind, the more objectionable, because so gruesome, aspect of the opera is Salome’s long monologue with the severed head of St. John, which ends with a sickening kiss. Don’t plan to go for a late night meal after this opera.
Having said that, the subversive elements of the work don’t seem to me to dominate it. Instead, I was surprised at just how, in a sense, conservative the overall arc of the drama is. John the Baptist, in particular, is portrayed as a man of integrity and spiritual authority, towering over (even as he is literally sunk beneath, in a well) the weakly tyrannical figure of Herod and his posturing court. Salome’s numerous attempts to seduce him are met with thunderous rejections, and he dies bravely. There is no question but that Herod, Herodias, Salome, and everyone around them are wicked, and even if the opera wallows too luxuriously in that wickedness, there is at least never any attempt to call evil good.
The fame of Salome may rest principally on its sensational story elements, but the music does much to justify its place in the canon of twentieth-century opera. There was a reason why, one famous night in 1906, Schoenberg, Mahler, Puccini, and other luminaries attended a performance. The music is darkly lovely, coruscating at times, intensely dramatic, making effective and liberal use of dissonance without lapsing into formlessness. It is reasonable, I think, to pair it with Elektra, which followed a few years later; the two works occupy a similarly provocative aesthetic space (which Strauss was later to abandon for more genteel entertainments). It is true that there is little to nothing in the score that qualifies as tuneful or particularly memorable, but the opera was written not to be whistled in the street, but to produce an intense dramatic effect, and in this it largely succeeds, despite the evident thinness of the plot.
Alas, this same deficit of tunefulness impairs my ability to excerpt “great moments”. I shy away from the “Dance of the Seven Veils” because I’ve no wish to advertise lewdness, and that last great monologue by Salome, fine as it is, lasts over 20 minutes, which is surely enough to try the patience of even the most indefatigable and loyal reader.
But here is a happy solution to the problem of how to present the “Dance of the Seven Veils”; we can look at the score:
What does that do for you? I admit it doesn’t do much for me, but then the same could be said for much of Strauss’ strictly orchestral music.
Here is a clip of the final minutes of the opera, showing roughly the last third of Salome’s gory conversation with St. John’s head. It is sung by the wonderful Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas in a (relatively) famous film version of the opera made in the 1970s. She’s lip-syncing, but the voice to which she’s lip-syncing is her own. English subtitles. This gives a reasonably good idea of the “feel” of the opera, and is worth watching through if you’re interested.
To pluck any other “great moments” would be, in this case, to multiply cases to no purpose, for one moment is more or less as good as another. As I said, this opera is not a tunesmith’s workshop. But here is a nice little “Intro to Salome” video produced by Carnegie Hall. I wonder if it contradicts anything I said above?
After a full year of focusing on the operas of Britten and Verdi, it was with some considerable relief that I turned this month to the Italian bel canto and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love) for refreshment and relaxation. I had not heard the opera before, and it fell on my ears like dew upon the grass. There is really nothing like a bel canto comedy for effervescent loveliness. L’Elisir d’Amore has that in abundance, and is furthermore graced with at least one aria that has become a permanent part of the repertoire, but more on that below.
The story is ridiculous: Nemorino is a young man who, spurned by Adina, the young woman on whom his heart has fixed, seeks from a quack physician a love potion that will make him irresistable to her. The potion is worthless, of course, but his guileless and dogged efforts to obtain it convince Adina of his love, and win her heart in the end.
The opera is cast in just two acts. Right away in the first scene we have a lovely aria, Quanto e’ bella (How beautiful she is), in which Nemorino sings of his love for Adina. He laments the fact that she gives him no attention, and wonders how she can be brought around to return his love. Here is Luciano Pavarotti, though without subtitles [Translation]:
A little later in the same scene, Adina sings a nice little aria, Della crudele Isotta (Of the cruel Isolde), in which she reads to the assembled villagers the story of Tristan and Isolde, and of the love potion which drove them both mad with passion. Hearing the tale, which the somewhat rustic Nemorino takes for truth, he is inspired with the thought of obtaining the same potion for himself. Here is the aria, sung by Kathleen Battle, again without subtitles [Text]:
In the next scene we are introduced to Dr Dulcamara, a travelling salesman who pedals marvellous elixirs to gullible peasants. Dulcamara is a con-man and a buffoon, but a somewhat amiable one.
Nemorino approaches Dulcamara and asks for a bottle of Isolde’s love potion. At first Dulcamara doesn’t know what he is asking for, but he catches on quickly enough and sells him the “potion” he seeks (actually, diluted wine). Nemorino drinks it, and waits for its effects to manifest. (In his charming naivete, it doesn’t occur to him that he really ought to get Adina to drink the potion.) The first act closes with a lovely duet for Nemorino and Adina, Esulti pur la barbara (loosely, Let her mock me). Here are Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, with English subtitles:
The action of the second act is mainly concerned with bringing the story to a happy conclusion, albeit with a few bumps along the way. Nemorino is initially disappointed to find that the potion doesn’t seem to be working. His response? To get more of it, of course. To do so, he has to enrol in the army (to get some money), and on and on. There is a comical deus ex machina in the form of a windfall inheritance that comes to Nemorino, but, in a nice twist, neither he nor Adina know about it. The other village girls know, however, and in this chorus, Sara possibile? (Is it possible?), they each decide that they’d like to be his wife. Thus we get a funny sequence in which every village girl except Adina is falling all over Nemorino, much to his confusion and disgust.
Adina sees the affection which the other women are lavishing on Nemorino, and, to her surprise, finds herself feeling jealous. She realizes she loves him, and she turns away in sorrow. He sees her sadness, and with joy realizes the cause. Thus it is that we come to the biggest hit from this opera, the romanza Una furtiva lagrima (A secret tear), in which he gives full voice to his happiness, in glorious fashion. Here is Pavarotti [Translation]:
Needless to say, the two soon find one another’s arms, and the opera comes to a happy conclusion.
In the wake of yesterday’s “classical crossover” mishap, allow me to offer something to cleanse the palate: here is Mary Schneider, in a more innocent time.